NEWS- Gunning it: 'Carmen's law' gets public hearing
Eight months after Carmen the cat's shocking shooting, the fallout from her death continues, now in the form of potentially stricter gun laws in Albemarle County. On Wednesday, December 13, for the third time in three months, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors talked about toughening the county's gun ordinance.
The law currently permits shooting in areas zoned rural, but prohibits discharge of weapons in residential areas. Though supes agreed that the law should change to ban shooting near schools and in dense "neighborhood model" developments, they failed to reach consensus on much else and agreed to send the issue to a public hearing in March.
"Most localities have more stringent restrictions than we do," said County Attorney Larry Davis, who presented the supes with six alternatives to the status quo.
Among the alternatives: expanding the restricted area to create a "countywide safety zone," where the discharge of firearms would be verboten within 200 yards of any dwelling; allowing subdivisions to petition for restrictions; and adding a 100-yard safety zone around schools and parks. Numerous exemptions would allow guns to be used in circumstances such as shooting a vicious animal or in self-defense.
In what may foreshadow the public debate to come, the supervisors vehemently disagreed about what type of change– if any– is called for.
"We're setting up a solution in search of a problem," said supe Lindsay Dorrier, a former prosecutor who believes that existing state law prohibiting reckless handling of a firearm is sufficient.
Sally Thomas voiced her concern that a 200-yard safety zone around dwellings could give people a false sense of security during hunting season.
Chair Dennis Rooker cited several county situations he believes may warrant a need for tougher laws, including a Ruckersville family frightened by a neighbor's firing range near their children's play area; and a boy who was shot in his county home by a stray bullet. Supervisor Ken Boyd mentioned the discharge of a gun at a Waffle House several years ago, an incident for which no one was charged.
And then, of course, there's Carmen.
As detailed in the Hook's May 18, 2006 cover story, "Claws & Effect: Bentivar shooting sparks outrage," Import Car Store owner George Seymour admitted to shooting Carmen because he believed she was one of several stray cats who'd allegedly scratched the valuable cars he stored on his driveway.
Carmen's owners, Vanessa and Klaus Wintersteiger, were angry that discharging a gun in a subdivision did not violate any law.
Seymour was convicted of misdemeanor animal cruelty and sentenced to 10 days in jail (with 50 suspended.) His attorney, Benjamin Dick, says Seymour has served his time. (Dick also volunteered, lest anyone suggest that citizens might avoid his auto dealership, that 2006 was "a banner year.")
The incident not only prompted animal rights activists to petition for tougher animal cruelty legislation, it also put Albemarle's gun laws under the microscope, and both Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos and Albemarle Police Chief John Miller asked the Supervisors to consider amending the law.
In a July 2006 letter to Rooker, Camblos focused on subdivisions. "From the standpoint of safety in heavily populated areas," he wrote, "the discharge of firearms should be restricted to the more rural areas of the county."
But defining rural areas in Albemarle County can be tricky. While subdivisions and other developments have sprung up throughout the county, the zoning hasn't changed– and that, says one gun afficionado, is the real problem.
"I don't think the answer is changing what people can do in agricultural areas," says Jackson Landers, an avid hunter and gun hobbyist who has posted his opinions about the issue on his rule-303.blogspot.com. "If we have agricultural areas built up to the point that they essentially become suburbs, let's change the zoning on those areas."
Other gun lovers fear that what starts as small legislation could turn into an outright ban on guns, as it has in New York City and Washington, D.C. "It's a slippery slope," says Bob Bossi, vice president of the Rivanna Rifle Club, who attended the supes' work session.
The shooting of Carmen could lead to tougher gun laws in the county.
FILE PHOTO COURTESY THE WINTERSTEIGER FAMILY